A Backstage Pass To Your Local Library
Public libraries are such an established institution we take them for granted, enjoying the friendly staff, entertaining and educational programming and getting any and all reference questions answered. This surface hides a more complex structure that makes the library works. Come and let’s peel back the curtain and see all the pieces that create the picture the public sees.
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Who’s In Charge
The Library Board: Libraries, like corporations, have boards. This group of individuals set the tone and determine the library’s mission and values. They oversee the creation of policies to translate those values into the everyday standards of behavior practiced by library staff. Their purview incudes keeping their eye on the community, assessing and re-assessing what it needs to ensure that the library is constantly current. Boards also have oversight on the budget, deciding how much each department gets, and, depending on the structure, approving new programming. Finally, they hire, gets reports from and reviews the library’s Director.
How the board is chosen is determined by how the library is organized. In a system run by a city or county, the library is one subdivision of the local government and the board is appointed by a local official, such as a mayor or county commissioner. As a government entity, its budget comes out of the general fund, and often new services have to run through not only the library but the government hierarchy for approval. A library district, in contrast, has spun out from the local government and become an independent entity. The process includes a petition signed by local citizens to request separation, public meetings, and a vote. In this case, Board members are chosen by voters and part of the tax base, known as a mill levy, goes directly to the library and its Board to decides how to spend it. Unless there is a special circumstance, a district board trusts the Director to approve new programming.
The Director: this is the CEO of the library, the public face dealing with the day-to-day operations as well as connecting with and forming partnerships with government leaders and other outside entities. Since no one can be everywhere at once, most libraries also divide duties into departments. Children, teen and adult services, IT, finance, collection development, community engagement, and/or marketing departments are common to all libraries, although these can either merge or have others not mentioned depending on the size of the library and the make-up of the community it serves. The heads of these departments act in much the same way Vice-Presidents do, overseeing all the aspects of their area, including staffing, and reporting to the Director. Below them are all the wonderful people who shelve and check-out books, help you with your computers, and conduct the storytimes for your kids to enjoy.
Libraries are directly and immediately involved in the conflict which divides the world, and for two reasons; first, because they are essential to the functioning of a democratic society; second, because the contemporary conflict touches the integrity of scholarship, the freedom of the mind, and even the survival of culture, and libraries are the great symbols of the freedom of the mind.”
— Franklin D. Roosevelt. Cited by Ditzion, Sidney, Arsenals of a Democratic Culture
The Larger Picture
Uniting local library systems, regardless of size, is the state library. While all fifty state have this institution, they all organize them differently. Some of them act as state archives, so do not. Some are open to the public, some only to researchers who apply for access. They all promote libraries on a statewide level. They research local library systems usage and are a clearinghouse for federal funds directed at libraries and as a publisher for state records. They often organize special collections that are too big an investment for an individual library entity, such as talking books for the blind. And while these libraries have no say in how an individual Board or Director runs the library, most welcome their help pulling off their largest program, Summer Reading as well as the unique digital collections they create.
A Little Help From My Friends (Group)
Friends groups have a unique role in the mosaic of the library community. Lacking a professional role, this group of library-loving citizens provide valuable services that help many libraries run. Like the superfans of Apple or Nike, these folks proselytize on the library’s behalf as well as volunteering and fundraising for them. These also vary by library and community with some being very structured with an aim at finding sponsors and hosting big fundraisers, while others are more modest in their aims, but many libraries depend on their help.
Join The Party
Want to contribute to your library community? There are many ways you can help. Friends groups are the most obvious, but libraries also have special committees for a variety of short-term programs, such as choosing a One Book, that you can volunteer for. Many libraries also embrace volunteerism and would love your help with basic housekeeping tasks. Finally, if your passion is that large, you can decide to run for the library board or approach your local government about taking on a term as a board member. Finally, you can support them at the ballot box by voting for measures that expand library services.
As public entities, libraries have a responsibility to make their practices transparent, one they take seriously. Very few members of that public, however, feel compelled to take a look as the public-facing staff does such a great job of taking care of them. Hopefully, this backstage tour has given you a sense of how your local library gives your community the amazing service you enjoy.